Fodder for conversation:
The "J" Turn
pathway to parallel
End the Death Wedge by teaching expert turn mechanics from the start
By Bud Heishman
There’s no need whatsoever to teach a braking wedge. There, I’ve said it. A
braking wedge is only useful to keep from going over a cliff or from plowing into
someone in a lift line. People discover how to brake instinctively.
Teaching the braking wedge along with an active weight shift is the easy way
out. Although this method is the quickest way to train beginners to stop and to
maneuver their skis, it can lead to lifelong
defensive habits that haunt skiers
their entire skiing careers. In fact, most skiers never discover expert skiing
because they are trapped in learning plateaus largely caused by these braking
We are all aware of at least a couple of common pathways to parallel skiing.
The most common are the wedge to parallel
and the direct to parallel
approaches. However, there is another, lesser known
pathway that combines
these two methods into a pathway devoid of defensive braking movements, yet
not as intimidating as the direct to parallel
pathway to parallel avoids braking wedges by introducing speed
control through line or skiing uphill and avoids active weight shifts by
introducing direction change via simultaneous, doubleedge
releases. The real
beauty of the J turn
pathway is that it introduces the elements of expert parallel
turn mechanics from the very beginning.
In contrast, teaching braking wedges and active weight shifts requires
unlearning these movements later in order to perform a parallel initiation. In
addition, both movements lead to stemming—the bane of mediocre skiers
everywhere. The J turn pathway avoids intentional sequential movements.
Sure, skiers who were taught by this traditional method may reach a level that
allows them to ski the whole mountain, but they ski defensively. They “ski the
fast line slow,” rather than like experts who “ski the slow line fast.” Skiers whose
default movement pattern is to put on the brakes, exhibit habitual stemming, or
the more subtle but obvious to a trained eye, sequential turn initiation. Expert
skiers, on the other hand, are adept at releasing both edges simultaneously to
initiate efficient parallel turns.
The J turn
pathway to parallel is an offensive rather than defensive approach.
A J turn
is merely an uphill turn that does not cross the fall line. It’s called a
because the track it leaves resembles a lazy J on its side. Essentially, it
is an uphill Christie. Linked Jturns
across the slope are garlands.
pathway offers a “Centerline,” or middleoftheroad,
demo, which is
an uphill Christie begun in a narrow wedge and finished by matching to
parallel. A more conservative student may perform the uphill turn in a wedge
the whole way to a stop, or the more athletic student may perform the Jturn,
from start to finish, in a parallel position. It does not really matter. The important
element is they learn that speed control comes from controlling one's line rather
than displacing the ski tails. They begin to separate the intent to turn or “go that
way” from the intent to brake or “don’t go that way.”
FINDING SPEED CONTROL
A typical ski lesson introduces the first experiences with speed control using a
braking wedge from a straight run. While this works it begins the pathway to
defensive, braking, “don’t go there” type skiing. Instead, why not avoid this
detrimental move by nixing straight runs down the fall line, instead begin with shallow
traverses reducing the anxiety level and introduce an uphill turn for speed control.
Studies show that a skier’s first experiences with speed control become
subconsciously anchored in their motor memory. It becomes an unconscious reflex,
a go to movement, the brake pedal. This is why I strongly urge instructors to avoid
"braking wedges" and "active weight shifts" to initiate turning in beginner lessons.
Neither of these movements are conducive to parallel turning and must be unlearned
later to permit parallel turn mechanics.
Historically many teaching systems, including PSIA, used snowplows, braking
wedges, tail displacing, upstem
turns, and downstem
turns in their teaching
methodology. When we look at the evolution of ski equipment and technique it is
apparent why this kind of technique was used for many years. With the evolution of
skis, bindings and boots these braking defensive actions are no longer needed.
Though PSIA introduced the “Centerline” concept back in the mid 80”s which
created a paradigm shift in teaching methodology in the USA, many instructors and
their trainers did not grasp this shift in thinking. The Centerline offers a skill blend
representing fluid, functionally sound skiing as a goal and provides a reference to
allow lateral exploration of different skill blends. So now the historical snowplow
braking turns could be one skill blend outcome, to one side of the Centerline, but the
Centerline focus was on a more offensive “Gliding Wedge” turns at the beginner
level. The Centerline concept focuses on getting speed control from “skiing the
slow line fast” vs. “skiing the fast line slow”. The gliding Centerline turning mechanics
do not use tail displacement to initiate turning rather they initiate turning by
eliminating resistance by releasing the down hill edge grip permitting the ski tips to
drift into the fall line. In other words a new turn is begun by letting go of the skis grip
on the earth and allowing gravity to do it’s thing. We start turns like a ball rolled
across the fall line starts it’s turn down the hill. When the ball’s forward momentum
gives in to the pull of gravity it turns to seek the fall line. A ball has no edges to grip
the slope to resist gravities pull and this is how we should initiate turns. Eliminate
our edge’s grip on the snow to work with gravity.
Teaching technique, in many ski schools, has lagged behind the Centerline
concept’s goals and intents. Shedding this antiquated approach to teaching parallel
turning has been difficult. I believe understanding the difference between a
defensive/braking intent and an offensive/GO intent, and how this affects turn
mechanics, is the key to breaking out (no pun intended) of the more classic method
of teaching beginners. Contemporary instructors recognize this paradigm shift and
adjust their teaching methodology accordingly to reflect the intent to “GO there”
rather than “STOP going that way”. “I turn to go where I want to go, skiing a slow
enough line to control my speed, sometimes I need to brake but I do not call this
turning” (Bob Barnes PSIARM).
These two intents are separated so that the goal is
to ski a slow enough line but ski around that line as fast as possible, vs. skiing the
fast line slow which involves skidding, pivoting, stemming, braking, scraping,
defensive skiing with little direction change.
By introducing line control as speed control vs defensive braking movements in our
beginner lessons, our students will be learning expert skiing movements from the
Active vs. passive weight shifts
An active weight shift is a movement of the upper body laterally over the outside
ski to initiate a turn. The active weight shift precedes turning. The weight shift
creates a differential in friction, which then causes a direction change. In
contrast, a passive weight shift occurs as a result of turning forces created by
turning. The turn initiation precedes the weight shift. The method we choose to
introduce at the beginner level has huge implications for the path our students’
skiing will take. One pathway is defensive and braking, the other is offensive or
One method requires the skier to make movements up and away
from the intended turn direction (defensive) the other nurtures edge release to
initiate turning by having every part of the body move in the direction of the
In a GOturn,
the ski tips move down the hill, rather than a ski tail moving right
to turn left, both ski tips go left to turn left. A passive weight shift occurs as
soon as the turn begins and should be embraced and encouraged. Balancing
on the outside ski of the turn is a primary skill of skiing, but how we get there is
key to developing offensive “GO there” skiing.
Intent to turn
You will note, while exploring the J turn
method, there is a paradigm shift in our
psychological intent to turn. We no longer associate the intent to turn with the
intent to brake. This is the intent of expert skiers. Experts turn with the intent to
GO and use their line to control their rate of descent. Defensive skiers turn to
slow down or NOT GO. We call this offensive intent the “GO turn”. Skiing a slow
enough line to control speed but skiing around that line as fast as possible.
Sometimes experts do need to brake and this is OK, but they do not associate
braking with turning. The intents are polar opposites. Simply grasping this
concept and changing a skier’s intent to turn will have a profound effect on
technique and skiing performance. The skis begin to move notably more
forward than sideways, as the scraping and skidding become closer to carving.
Changing the skier’s intent to turn can be the key to breaking through
intermediate plateaus that plague so many recreational skiers. The J turn
pathway accomplishes this.
Bud Heishman is a Level III instructor and member of the Western Division
Tech Team since 1987. He is the owner of Snowind Sports in Reno, Nevada.
In 2012, Ski Magazine ranked him as one of the top 15 boot fitters in the
quote] “Most skiers never discover expert skiing because they are
trapped in learning plateaus largely caused by these braking habits.
There are three basic tasks on which to focus to be successful using the Jturn
approach: an uphill Christie, a bullfighter turn, and a double edge
Static: Begin with the skis across the fall line on a very shallow beginner slope.
Have the student shift weight from one foot to the other to find where they feel
the most stable. Demonstrate at turn completion how they should feel solidly
balanced over their downhill ski.
Bullfighter turn demo: Introduce the bullfighter turn to get them turned 180
degrees in the other direction and repeat above exercise. The bullfighter turn
involves placing the butt of the pole in the palms of our hands, then creating a
straight line with our poles and arms with locked elbows. Once this is done we
place the pole tips as far as possible directly downhill of our feet, with one to
the outside of the binding toe piece and one to the outside of the heel piece.
Now the skier takes small steps around with the feet in a little box to aim in the
Now use the bullfighter turn to have them point their skis into a shallow traverse
angle. Demonstrate a Centerline J turn
beginning in a small wedge. Once
moving, to gain a bit of momentum, make a shallow turn uphill matching the
inside ski to Christie, finishing the turn parallel to a stop.
Use the bullfighter turn to reposition, once again, into a shallow traverse and
repeat all the way across the slope. Once at the edge of run, use bullfighter
turn to face 180 degrees back across the slope and repeat garlands across the
Next, link garlands across the slope at progressively steeper starting positions.
At this juncture students should begin to feel comfortable with speed control
and understand how turning up the hill will slow or stop them without ever using
a braking wedge.
The next task to introduce is the edge release movement. Here is one example
of how to introduce edge releases:
Begin from a stationary position with skis across the fall line. Demonstrate how
to adjust edge angles using ankles and lower legs vs. hips and shoulders. Then
have students roll their knees and ankles down the hill until the edges begin to
release. Make sure they keep their head over the downhill ski. Start with small,
slow movements then work into sideslips down the hill.
Once students are comfortable with side slipping, begin to traverse the slope on
a very shallow traverse on edged skis and begin to roll knees and ankles until
the edges release into a forward sideslip. Practice forward side slips for a
whole run, back and forth across the slope. Use the bullfighter turn to come
back the other way. Check for good body positions.
Now return to the J turn
garlands, but this time, instead of repositioning skis
with a bullfighter turn, have them turn up enough to slow their speed, while
allowing enough forward momentum so they can release their edges into a
forward sideslip and then back into an uphill Christie. Again, link garlands
across the slope, using bull fighter turn at the other side of slope to come back
the other direction.
Next, gradually increase the turning by complementing the edge release with
some active twisting of the feet to point the ski tips downhill. Students will likely
demonstrate a slight wedge opening, which if fine, but not necessary to
reinforce. Discourage any stemming or braking wedges. Once students are
able to link garlands with straight down the fall line segments, they are ready to
do a Cturn.
Explain that once they can point their skis straight down the fall line, they now
have the option of finishing their turn to the right or to the left. Continue to
practice garlands across the slope but substitute the bullfighter turn with a
to come back the other way. Now we are ready to link two C turns
make S turns.
Whoohoo! moment: At this stage, get lots of mileage on the easiest terrain
available. Have fun and experiment with turn size and comfort levels with speed.
Help students discover and get comfortable with where the acceleration occurs
in a turn and where speed subsides in the turn. Encourage them to embrace
the short periods of acceleration, “the “Whoohoo! moment, knowing that if they
just keep turning in the same turn, their speed will subside.
Help them discover the appropriate amount of momentum to carry into the
beginning of the next turn. Continue to practice a good edge release, passive
but positive weight shift to the outside ski, and a good body position/stance. I
like to have my students inhale as they initiate a turn into the fall line, then
exhale as they finish the turn. This helps with flexion extension
timing and aids
Conclusion: By reevaluating
how we introduce speed control and turn
initiations and choosing to teach skiers to release edges to begin turns, and ski
the slow line fast, we can put our students on the fast track to expert skiing
Edited by bud heishman - 10/25/13 at 6:00pm